Colleagues Mourn Loss of Beloved Psychiatrist Kevin Mack

By Elizabeth Fernandez

A psychiatrist who dedicated his practice to serving the underserved. A teacher passionate about training the next generation of doctors. A devoted husband and father. A techie, a genial host, and once in a while – a baker.

Kevin Mack and family

Kevin Mack, second from left, with his husband, Naoki Nitta, and their children Chiaki, 7, and Nobu, 4. 

Kevin Mack, MD, MS, embodied all those graces.

Mack died July 14 in a collision while on an early-morning campus shuttle bus from the Parnassus campus to his work at the UCSF-affiliated San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH) where he was a staff psychiatrist. He was 52.

He was an associate clinical professor in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry. He was also director of Educational Technology and Faculty Development in the UCSF-Berkeley Joint Medical Program, an Advisory College mentor, and a member of the Haile T. Debas Academy of Medical Educators. His work extended beyond the Bay Area too, through the World Health Organization and problem-based learning programs he developed for use in Africa and the South Pacific.

“Dr. Mack had the rare ability to bring together colleagues from different departments to work toward a common goal,’’ said James W. Dilley, MD, vice chair of the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and chief of psychiatry at SFGH. “He collaborated with faculty and staff across the hospital, whether it was to create an individualized educational plan for a struggling medical student, a treatment plan for a challenging General Medicine Clinic patient, or to offer encouraging words in a brief hallway conversation. Kevin was always able to see the very best in people and he had a unique gift to engage and bring out that best part of them.’’

Beloved by Those Who Knew Him

As a result, among his colleagues, students and the many others who knew him, Mack was a beloved figure.

“He touched so many people’s lives,’’ said Renee Binder, MD, interim chair and professor of the Department of Psychiatry. “He was so approachable and so nurturing. He was always concerned with how people were feeling – he would ask not just about their work, but about their children and their relationships.’’

Remembering Kevin Mack

An account in honor of Kevin Mack, MD, has been established to benefit his husband and children through Wells Fargo Bank. Donations made out to the Kevin Mack, MD Memorial Fund can be made in person at any Wells Fargo branch. For more information, call 415-668-0077.

Members of the UCSF community are invited to celebrate the life of Mack at 5 p.m. on Thursday at Cole Hall on the Parnassus campus. The event will be simulcast to the San Francisco General Hospital cafeteria and UC Berkeley’s University Hall, room 150.

During the remembrance, books of remembrances will be compiled as gifts to Dr. Mack’s children, Chiaki, 7, and Nobu, 4. For more information, contact Gina Martinez at 415/476-7755 or [email protected]

Thoughts about Mack can be shared here.

In his role as an Advisory College mentor, Mack was an extraordinary supporter of students in their academic and professional development, said Maxine Papadakis, MD, associate dean in the UCSF School of Medicine. Because of that, a special student-centric remembrance of his life is being planned for the end of August, when students return from their summer break.

“He would spend so many hours with his mentees,’’ Papadakis said. “He was a very busy man, but he always found time to help the students and to make them feel very special. He was so deeply caring. And he was an excellent listener who gave honest feedback.’’

From his students, Mack’s evaluations were consistently glowing, said Papadakis, rustling through a sheaf containing student evaluations from the spring:

“He knows when to reach out,’’ one wrote.

“Kind, attentive…huge, indispensible help," said another.

“Wouldn’t be in medical school if not for him.’’

A Career in Health Sciences

Mack, who was born in Grosse Point, Michigan to Katherine and Thomas Mack, received his master’s degree in clinical psychology from Chaminade University in Honolulu and his medical degree from the University of Hawaii.

Following medical school, Mack interned and did his residence in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He worked as a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School for several years and a visiting clinical professor at the University of Rome in Gemelli, Italy. In the late 1990s, he concurrently served on the staff at Mount Auburn Hospital and the Cambridge and Somerville Hospitals in Cambridge, Mass.

Mack first joined UCSF in 2000 as a clinical instructor in health sciences, and as the medical director of the Psychosocial Medicine Clinic at SFGH. In 2002, he became an assistant clinical instructor, and in 2008 he became an associate clinical professor.

Kevin Mack makes a point.

Kevin Mack talks with Ann Stevens, a clinical professor in the UCSF Department of Medicine who this month became director of the Joint Medical Program at UCSF and UC Berkeley.

From 2009-2010, Mack served as medical director of the division of substance abuse and addiction medicine at SFGH, where he was responsible for the oversight and compliance of all state and federal regulations governing opiate treatment and methadone maintenance.

In addition, he chaired the general hospital’s Psychiatry Grand Rounds Committee, invigorating the forum and making it a center of learning in the department, Dilley said. As the SFGH site facilitator for the UCSF psychiatry faculty mentorship program, Mack “worked tirelessly with both junior and senior faculty to clarify career goals, to facilitate professional connections with colleagues, and to help them prepare their materials for the academic advancement process,’’ Dilley said.

“His ability to work with colleagues was especially important in his most recent role (as attending physician) in the psychiatric emergency service where on Tuesdays and Thursdays he was a frequent visitor to the medical emergency room to provide psychiatric consultations for extremely distressed and often agitated patients,’’ Dilley added. “His wisdom and gift for clearly explaining complicated circumstances was greatly appreciated by all.’’ 

For more than a decade, Mack poured his energies into the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, an accredited five-year graduate program in which students receive a cross-disciplinary medical education that encompasses the humanities, public health and social and behavioral sciences.

“We are reeling,’’ said Ann Stevens, MD, a clinical professor in the UCSF Department of Medicine who this month became director of the Joint Medical Program. “It is such a shock. He meant so very much to all of us.’’

Two days before he died, Mack counseled a student and later sent him a note expressing gratitude for being allowed to do “something unique and really important. Thank you for that.’’

“The overwhelming amount of anguish and loss we are all feeling is related to Kevin’s intense commitment to all around him,’’ Stevens said. “He held seminars that helped us be better medical educators, better tutors, better advisors. He had so many students that he took care of – they even had his cell phone number. He had his finger in nearly every single pie for medical education.’’

Mack served as director of curriculum development at the Joint Medical Program from 2000 to 2002, and as director of faculty development from 2006 until his death.

To the program, Mack brought a vision of a new curriculum – case-based learning in which students acquire medical knowledge and care of patients through a wide prism that included the patient’s own family, community, cultural, and social experience. It was a method of integrated, problem-based learning that he had studied while in medical school and residency, and he guided it through its adoption by the program.

“He held our hands through the process of converting our core curriculum,’’ Stevens said. “It is so innovative, futuristic. It was a gigantic, paradigm shift for us – it was a gift of a very different type of approach for medical education. It has been incredibly successful in helping students learn how to learn, learn how to ask the right questions.’’

Mack more recently had begun working with the World Health Organization to develop similar teaching programs for medical students in Ethiopia.

“The overwhelming amount of anguish and loss we are all feeling is related to Kevin’s intense commitment to all around him,’’ Ann Stevens said.

Besides his medical knowledge and connection with students, Mack’s contributions to the UCSF-Berkeley Joint Medical Program(JMP) extended into the tech sphere – he was in charge of the Office of Educational Technology where he built the technological backbone for the program.

“He was arguably one of the most brilliant and kindest human beings I’ve ever known,’’ said John Swartzberg, MD, clinical professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and the former Joint Medical Program director who hired Mack in 2000 to help develop the student curriculum. “I have received phone calls and emails from around the world expressing condolences and sadness.’’

A Selfless Supporter of Students

Students remember Mack as artfully and seamlessly providing whatever support they needed – personal, professional and technological.

“He would capture everyone’s attention with his enthusiasm and passion for learning, even if he was talking about a procedure on how to log into a database,’’ said third-year student Najim Mohammady. “He was the kind of person who gave you a hug, a pat on the back, or a big smile very time you saw him and genuinely wanted to know how things were going.’’ 

Malia Paik-Nicely, who is in her third year in the Joint Medical Program, described Mack as a warm, compassionate and selfless man.

Kevin Mack gives a speech at his wedding.

Kevin Mack gives a speech following his marriage to husband Naoki Nitta in 2008.

“He once called me from Japan simply to praise a project I had submitted and to let me know that I was on the right track,’’ she said. “At the time, I was almost embarrassed to have disrupted his trip but, in retrospect, I understand that that was just Kevin’s way of showing his support and availability to students even when he was thousands of miles away.

“He had a way of making you feel like you were the only person in the room, even when there were hundreds,’’ Paik-Nicely continued. “He never failed to seize the moment to check with each person to make sure everything was ok, and be there as support and guidance when it was not. His incredible dedication to his family, friends, students and multiple professional responsibilities is so admirable.  He has impacted my life in so many ways and I feel so blessed to have known him – it has made me a better person and future physician.’’

As more demands were placed on Mack’s time, he adapted his schedule at SFGH “so that he could maintain a clinical and educational presence here,’’ Dilley said.

A Loving Friend and Parent

During his career, Mack received numerous honors and awards including the 2011 UCSF Essential Core Teaching Award for Innovative Teaching; the 2010 UCSF/SFGH Pillar of Academia Award from the Department of Psychiatry; the 2007 UCSF Academy of Medical Educators Excellence in Teaching Award; the 2007 UC Berkeley JMP Humanism in Medicine Award.

Kevin Mack and his colleagues at UCSF

Kevin Mack gathers with his colleagues at UCSF.

It was at an awards dinner shortly after his arrival at UCSF that Mack met another honoree, Amin Azzam, MD, MA, now an associate clinical professor in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry.

“He asked me ‘How old are you?’ ’’ recalled Azzam, co-director of the UCSF Health Professions Education Pathway to Discovery. “The only response one psychiatrist to another psychiatrist could possibly give was: ‘Why do you ask?’ Without skipping a beat, Kevin said that he was looking for someone to take over his job in a few years with the joint program at Berkeley.’’

That evening, a deep friendship was born, and eventually Azzam did indeed take over as the head director of the Problem-Based Learning Curriculum at the Joint Medical Program. The two became colleagues, friends, and occasionally would challenge each other in good-natured debates.

“I think of him as an intellectual soulmate,’’ said a grieving Assam. “The day before he died, we were sitting in his office where we got into a loud discussion. We always enjoyed the opportunity to push each other intellectually, knowing that we both assumed good intent.’’   

While attending medical school in Hawaii, Mack met the man who would become his spouse, Naoki Nitta. They married in 2008 at a ceremony at San Francisco’s City Hall attended by friends and family as well as their daughter and son – Chiaki, now 7, and Nobu, now 4. 

“Kevin was such a loving parent,’’ said Renee Binder, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry. “Once, he brought his daughter to a faculty event. I watched Kevin interact with his daughter. I remember thinking ‘Everybody wants a dad like that.’ ’’

Kevin and Naoki Mack, who lived within walking distance of the Parnassus campus, enjoyed opening their home to other faculty, with everyone gathering around the fireplace. Occasionally, Mack would bake his specialty: chocolate chip cookies.

“Kevin had a sweet tooth,’’ Azzam said. “He always liked to drink his coffee black, he liked the contrast between the bitter coffee and the sweet dessert that would accompany it. Now, I am drinking all my coffee black in a tribute to Kevin. My wife said it is symbolic – life is a lot less sweet without Kevin.’’

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